Natural good

The fact that children need to be disciplined (or guided, if you prefer) is not proof that they are naturally immoral or a-moral. On the contrary: the training they require is tied to a natural, if undeveloped morality. Eila knows what’s right and she needs to hear it too. She needs to hear what she already knows so that she knows that I know and that the world makes sense. The evidence for this is that when parents don’t guide a child, or misguide her, she does not become a happy, uncomplicated, bad person. She becomes an unhappy, conflicted person. And the first thing that happens is that she loses respect for her parents.

This is in my mind because of a conversation I had with a friend the other day. I was talking about my struggles to discipline Eila, and my friend said sadly: “I always cherished the idea that children were innately moral, but I suppose I’ll have to give it up.” I don’t think she does. Children’s morality is pretty vague, but they have a sense of what’s fair, and that’s the root of everything else. They’re sometimes bad because like all of us they’re partly weak and partly selfish, and the world confuses them, and they haven’t learned to master themselves, and also — as I’ve been saying — because they need to test what they sense. But they rise to respond to consistent discipline. St. Augustine says in the Confessions that infants are little bundles of sin, but he’s mistaken.

Speaking of family, you know that three conferences I ought to attend – APA, MLA, and AJS – are scheduled over winter break? Why is this? Is it true that most academics would rather give up three days of their home-time than three days of their office time? Or is it just these academics?


4 thoughts on “Natural good

  1. Is that evidence of a natural morality or a gradual process of learning through observation? Doesn’t Eila “know” basically what’s right by observing you, Z, teachers, etc., all of whom share core moral/ethical beliefs about human interaction?

  2. Now that you press me to be clearer, I’ll admit that the phrase “natural goodness” isn’t exactly the one I want, and arose from my conversation with my friend. What I want to say is something more like this. Any strict distinction between nature and nurture doesn’t hold up. Many things are in a child — we know that children are not born blank slates — and everything that is there is also trained — formed or deformed — by environment, starting as you say from the very beginning.

    Without the environmental influences nothing happens at all. I don’t believe Augustine when he says that children are “naturally” bad, but neither do I have some romantic vision of “natural” childish innocence. And the reason I don’t have these things is that there’s no such thing as “natural” in that sense — a child who was not in some sense “raised” is a dead child, and a child who was left alone or placed only with other children would be damaged.

    But on the other hand, it also seems true to me that, in a child’s developing grasp of basic morality, there is a large element of recognition. Part of what I mean by saying that they don’t emerge from the womb blank slates is that they don’t emerge indifferent to the difference between kindness and cruelty. You can teach a child — if you work carefully — that cruelty is appropriate in some situations, but if you do that, you are going against the grain. When they see fair dealing, they recognize it. Or so it seems to me.

  3. On the academic conferences, the standard reply would be that all facets of academic life are modeled to suit the classic academic of yore, whose wife can tend to family matters when he cannot.

  4. thanks for the perspective. it’s a good thing for me to think of when i’m shocked at the perceived malice underlying some children’s actions.

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